By Michael K. Lavers
Historical context and brutal honesty about her own personal struggles have always been an important part of Ruby Corado’s advocacy.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic was in full swing when she moved to D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in 1992. LGBT Washingtonians remained susceptible to harassment and other forms of discrimination, even though the city’s Human Rights Act already included sexual orientation — but not gender identity — as a protected category.
In spite of these challenges, Corado said those who sought refuge in the relative safety of Dupont Circle came together to protect their own.
“Growing up in the early ’90s in Dupont Circle was about being free because when you walked outside Dupont Circle, you couldn’t be free,” she said. “It was OK for us to go out in mini-skirts and your wig and just maybe your beard. You were never looked at as different because you expressed yourself.”
Corado has brought this context and sense of personal identity to the LGBT community center in Northwest D.C. that bares her name.
Casa Ruby in the city’s Columbia Heights neighborhood officially opened its doors in June 2012.
The organization offers a variety of social services and other programs to LGBT Latinos who live throughout the Washington metropolitan area in both Spanish and English. These include job-placement programs, referrals to immigration lawyers, HIV testing and access to clothes and a food pantry.
An organization that oversees the city’s housing programs for the homeless in July awarded Casa Ruby a contract to become the fiscal agent for the Wanda Alston House, a residential shelter for homeless LGBT youth in Northeast D.C., after the transgender advocacy group that managed the facility filed for bankruptcy. Corado and two of her clients last month testified at a hearing on human trafficking of LGBT youth the District of Columbia State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held in the nation’s capital.
The Community Justice Project at the Georgetown University Law Center is working with Casa Ruby this fall to further bolster the organization’s capacity.
Casa Ruby has served more than 700 clients since it opened in spite of ongoing financial pressures the organization continues to face. These included the $7,000 in back rent it owed in July to the landlord of the three-story Georgia Avenue, N.W., brownstone in which it is located.
Casa Ruby has paid some of the aforementioned debt back.
“One of my biggest fears even as of today will be that I will come to Casa Ruby and no one is there,” Corado said. “That would be the only thing that scares me.”
Corado credits her advocacy and what she described as her willingness to challenge the police, city officials and others whom she feels are not providing LGBT Washingtonians and particularly her clients the services she feels they need to living through the civil war in her native El Salvador in the 1980s.
“I would go to school and I would see bodies lying on the street,” she said. “I would go to school and in the middle of the day you’d have helicopters and shootings and bombs and you’re a child. You grow up with some level of strength.”
Corado fled her homeland in 1986 and moved to Silver Spring, Md., where she soon began to clean a building on Colesville Road. Corado said she had to work four jobs when she arrived in this country because the family with whom she lived insisted she owed them money.
The first gay experience she had in the United States was seeing a Washington Blade box.
“I remember seeing the word ‘gay,’ and I was like, this is me,” Corado said. “I remember kind of like wanting to touch the box, but I was afraid just to touch the paper box because I knew that was accepting who I was.”
Corado said her first same-sex sexual experience came soon after that moment when she was 18, and “from these I just became a little more open.” She said she had “realized I was embracing who I was in being gay” by the time she moved to Dupont Circle in 1992.
Corado began to cross-dress the same year, and she began to transition into a woman in 1995. Corado abruptly stopped taking hormones later that year after Tyra Hunter died from injuries she suffered in a car accident — and emergency medical personnel who responded to the scene declined to treat her once they discovered she was trans.
Corado went “on and off” hormones until she completed her transition in 1999.
“Even now as a transgender activist, as a transgender person, I know that society wants to put different labels on us, and we have to accept them sometimes,” Corado said. “There’s one identity that I never left. Even though Ruby’s transgender, I’m very happy being gay because to me being gay means that I’m happy, being happy with who I am.”
Corado lived on Church Street, N.W., in Dupont Circle near the Foundry United Methodist Church where then-President Clinton and his family attended services. She credits Xavier Onassis Bloomingdale, who is considered the mother of the D.C. drag scene, as among the many mentors she had while living in the neighborhood.
Corado also recalled how the owner of Mr. P’s, a gay bar on 21st Street, N.W., in Dupont Circle that has since closed, would teach those who did not have a job how to do their makeup if they arrived by 4 p.m.
They performed five shows a night and made $25.
“With that $25, the next day you’d have enough money to eat,” Corado recalled.
Corado volunteered at Whitman-Walker Health, an HIV/AIDS and community-health clinic in D.C., from 1995-96. She worked for the organization from 2002-08, but personal demons and struggles continued to consume her.
Corado in 1997 learned she was living with HIV.
She said she began to engage in sex work in 2003 because many of her friends were doing the same thing. Corado became addicted to cocaine in 2009 after a sexual assault she said she experienced — and she soon became homeless because she spent all of her money on the drug.
Corado told her clients and supporters in an e-mail she sent to them last month that a panic attack prompted her to remain in the hospital for several days.
“I wanted them to know, you know, Ruby still gets up,” she said. “Just because now I’m leading an organization, my clients always expected honesty from me.”